Council Update: Landfill, Road Transfers, Parks & Rec Fees, Solar City

Front-end Processor at Otter Lake Landfill. Photo HRM

Agenda Committee of the Whole, July 20
Agenda July 20

Landfill Changes:
To start off our long day, Council held a Committee of the Whole to consider shutting down the front end processor (FEP) and waste stabilization facility (WSF) at the Otter Lake landfill. The way waste is handled at Otter Lake is all incoming garbage is opened and then sorted at the front end processor to separate out organics and recyclables. Organic materials are then cut up and composted over 15-21 days before they’re sent to the landfill. The intent is to minimize the amount of improperly sorted materials going to the landfill and to reduce any issues that might arise from decomposing organics. The system is expensive to operate and uses considerable amounts of energy. The key question is, are the benefits of operating the FEP and WSF worth the extra costs? Staff’s answer to that is no, they’re not.

Shutting down the FEP and WSF has been a point of contention for several years. The Community Monitoring Committee opposes shutting down the FEP and WSF and the issue has been a political football. To try and bring some evidence based decision making to bear on the issue, HRM has hired three different consultants over the years to evaluate the FEP and WSF. All three, Dillion, Stantec, and SNC, recommended shutting down the FEP and WSF.

This is actually a good news story. What has really happened is HRM has outgrown the FEP and WSF. The FEP and WSF came about from the 1995 Integrated Waste/Resource Management Strategy. The intent in 1995 was to do better with the new landfill than the notorious Sackville dump. Since 1995, the world of waste in HRM has changed considerably. The FEP and WSF predated green bins, clear bags, and the considerable efforts that have been put into educating the public on properly sorting waste. The result of the consistent emphasis on diversion is that HRM now has one of the best waste diversion rates in the whole country. 60% of our waste is recycled or composted.

In recent years, the decision in 2015/2016 to implement clear bags and allow commercial haulers to send commercial and industrial waste to other cheaper landfills elsewhere in the province has meant that waste going to Otter Lake has dropped from 134,000 tonnes a year to 45,000 tonnes. That’s a staggering reduction.

Impact of clear bags 2014 versus 2015. Commercial (ICI) diversion 2015 versus 2016

The result of steadily improving sorting by residents and diverting commercial waste is that the there are just over 4,000 tonnes of organics being processed at the WSF today as compared to over 30,000 back in 2004, and that reduction has occurred despite population growth over the same period.

The original 1995 strategy always envisioned the FEP and WSF as being something that could be phased out with time. The 1995 strategy says that the FEP and WSF could “be scaled down in a planned manner as source-separated centralized composting scales up.” With nearly 60% of waste diverted from the landfill, with commercial waste being exported elsewhere, with residents sorting effectively, and with so little organic waste left, the expert consensus is the FEP and WSF are no longer needed. They are really not adding much to the process at this point other than costs. We’ve improved the waste system so considerably over the last 20 years that they’re just not needed anymore.

But what if all the experts are wrong? What if shutting down the FEP and WSF causes issues to arise as the Community Monitoring Committee fears? Just in case, HRM is going to maintain the FEP and WSF. The equipment will be shutdown, but it won’t be dismantled. It will be kept on site in case it is needed again in the future. The likely scenario where that could happen would be if other landfills stopped accepting HRM’s commercial waste and it had to return to Otter Lake. Council accepted the staff recommendation 13-3, with Councillors Stoddard, Purdy, and Hendsbee dissenting.

What’s Next?
Shutting down the FEP and WSF isn’t a done deal quite yet. Operating the FEP and WSF is a condition of the Department of Environment permit for Otter Lake. To shutdown the FEP and WSF will require Provincial approval. The landfill is in the premier’s riding and there has been political interference in the past when it comes to the landfill, such as when the height of the cells was capped via a private-members bill put forward by Rankin with no consultation whatsoever with HRM. Hopefully, the Department of Environment and whoever the minister ends up being after August 17th will undertake a fair, evidence-based review, but there are no guarantees that evidence will beat politics.

In fact, responses from all three parties in a Halifax Examiner story generated a lukewarm response. The NDP and PCs pledged more consultation (as if this issue hasn’t been exhaustively gone over already), but the Liberal response was the most problematic: “a re-elected Liberal government would stand by commitments made to Timberlea-Prospect and surrounding areas.” This, “it doesn’t matter what the evidence is” answer is a pretty terrible response.

The implications of keeping the FEP and WSF running for political reasons is that the landfill operator (Mirror) may exercise their right to terminate the existing contract with HRM since the FEP and WSF significantly impact their costs. HRM would then have to retender for a new landfill operator (Mirror could rebid at a new higher price). We don’t know what the increased cost of a new a contract would be, but staff estimate it could exceed $2,000,000 a year, an expense that would inevitably land on the tax bill. If the Province refuses HRM’s request, it’ll be for political reasons, not scientific ones, and those political reasons will cost every HRM taxpayer more money each year to run equipment that is producing no added value, at great expense, and that needlessly generates greenhouse gases.

Candy Mountain Road in Lawrencetown. A soon to be HRM road. Photo: Google

Road Transfers:
Council gave, grudging approval to staff to continue discussions with the Province for the upcoming transfer of 300 kilometres of rural roads, including 19 bridges. This is a big download of responsibilities and costs. Preliminary estimates from staff indicate new yearly costs to HRM of around $5,000,000 in operating and $4,000,000 – $6,000,000 million a year in capital for a total of over $10,000,000. There is no way HRM will be able to just absorb that from our existing tax base. This transfer will have tax implications. HRM estimates that the average tax bill will rise $31 to $34 to cover the cost of these roads. We will all be paying for this download.

So how did we get here? Why is the Province transferring responsibility for these roads to HRM? As part of municipal reform in the 1990s that ultimately gave us amalgamation, the Province planned to get out of the business of maintaining local roads. The feeling was the Province should maintain highways only and there is a certain logic to that. The implications for HRM were considerable though because of the vast network of Provincial roads in Halifax County. So, the Province agreed to keep rural roads in HRM in areas that have less than 90 dwellings per square kilometre. The idea of tying road transfers to density was that HRM would only get roads when there was a tax base in the area to support the cost. The Province also sweetened the pot by agreeing to cost share maintenance on several major HRM streets, such as Main Street in Dartmouth, that are integral to the Provincial transportation network.

Unfortunately, the Province has been selective about what parts of the agreement they consider valid. They unilaterally stopped cost-sharing in 2001, but still point to the agreement’s other clauses to justify the transfer. If that’s not having your cake and eating it to, I don’t know what is! Unfortunately, HRM isn’t in a great position to negotiate here. We’re getting these roads whether we like it or not and a hostile transfer could be even worse for us. Council agreed to the staff recommendation to continue to prepare for the transfer, but also to engage with the Province to renegotiate the original 1990 agreement. Hopefully the dated agreement can be made current, and that, this time, the Province will actually live up to their commitments. The road transfer will loom over our 2022 budget discussions.

There is a bigger picture issue around road transfers for HRM to consider. While Council looks at the downloading of rural roads and is, understandably, concerned about what that means for HRM’s tax rate, we also have to consider the role we’ve played in our misfortune. The Provincial agreement is dated and the Province is being selective about the parts that they consider valid, but the agreement’s trigger is based on density along rural roads…. who has responsibility for land-use planning again? Right. That would be HRM. If we don’t want to have infrastructure downloaded on us with all the costs that come with it, we should maybe not allow costly, unsustainable, low density development to be built all over the countryside in the first place. Rural and suburban growth isn’t going away, and nor should it. What it has to be is more sustainable. The road transfer is a stark reminder that the costs of unsustainable development patterns are eventually paid by all of us. This is a perfect example of the fiscal imperative to build more sustainably and something we should keep in mind as part of the Regional Plan Review.

Photo: HRM

Parks and Rec Fees:
The sometimes thorny issue of Parks and Rec fees returned to Council. On the agenda was first reading for a new administrative order that would bring order to the chaotic world of parks and rec fees.

The challenge for parks and rec is there hasn’t been any real rhyme or reason to what fees are charged. Things weren’t aligned at amalgamation and, as a result, similar programming can have different costs depending on where in HRM it’s located. Some programs are heavily subsidized and some aren’t, rental rates for space vary wildly, and there is no overall plan for any of it. There is no consistency, no overall set of principles to guide anything. HRM also hasn’t raised fees since 2011, which means that fees are making up a smaller portion of programming costs, and creating a situation where HRM is, effectively, undercutting other non-profit programs out there that don’t have the advantage of being able to use tax dollars to make up any gaps. The whole area is in need of change.

To bring order out of chaos, HRM hired KPMG to evaluate Parks and Recs programs. Based on KPMG’s report, staff recommend basing parks and rec fees on the actual cost of providing a program or space and directing subsidy to those most in need of it (low-income residents, and youth). The administrative order sets subsidies for youth at 50% – 80% of the full rate with additional subsidies for participants in HRM’s Affordable Access Program. Access program participants will received an additional 50%-100% reduction depending on their financial need. So as to avoid the spikes and valleys of infrequent fee adjustments, HRM’s programming, while still less than other providers are charging and fees in other comparable municipalities, will be adjusted by 2.0% each year to keep up with inflation. The new Parks and Rec fee structure will be phased in over the next few years.

Photo: HRM

Solar City Program Expansion:
HRM’s Solar City program is expanding. Solar City is HRM’s successful solar energy incentive program. The way it works is the cost of installing a solar system is charged back to homeowners as a local improvement charge on their property over 10 years. The program has a fixed interest rate and the balance can be paid at anytime with no penalty. This helps reduce financial barriers, and since the debt is a local improvement charge, it stays with the property rather than the individual. That means that if a homeowner ends up moving before their system is paid off, the loan can be picked up by the new owner. The person benefitting from the system pays the cost.

As part of HRM’s Climate Change Plan, HalifACT, the municipality committed to scaling up Solar City, both in terms of solar energy installations and by expanding into energy retrofits. Emissions from buildings account for nearly half of HRM’s total emissions making it impossible to achieve our climate goals without addressing energy efficiency. Council approved the intent of expanding Solar City into energy retrofits, along with seed money of $3,500,000. Staff will return to Council in a few months for approval of program details with the goal of launching an expanded program later this year.


  • Approved rezoning for 16 Rutledge Street in Bedford to enable a multi-unit development
  • Gave permission for a fly-past for September 6 as part of a multi-national military exercise (Operation Cutlass) planned for that date
  • Finalized changes to the Noise Bylaw to exempt noise from patios on Argyle Street from 9:00 am till midnight
  • Awarded the contract for managing Transit advertising to Pattison
  • Amended the COVID administrative order to allow for the potential resumption of in-person Council and committee meetings once public health restrictions allow (likely Phase 5 so maybe this fall)
  • Directed the CAO to include gender based analysis training in HRM’s regular HR programs (Councillors included)
  • Approved a recommendation from the Women’s Advisory Committee to consider, through the UN Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces program, the impact of anti-Asian racism on women’s experiences in public spaces
  • Deferred first reading of the vehicle immobilization bylaw (the booting bylaw) to allow staff to answer a bunch of supplemental questions from Council
  • Requested a staff report on tougher rules around removing dogs from the community when there is an attack (brought forward by Councillor Morse in response to a troubling case in Fairview)
  • Deferred reports on Street Art in the Right-of-Way, and on zoning in Upper Hammonds Plains until our next meeting on the 17th because we ran out of time